Creating American Slavery: Colonial Laws Background:

Creating American Slavery: Colonial Laws


Initially American slavery was undefined, without clear laws, rules or regulations distinguishing enslaved Africans from English indentured servants. In the span of a hundred years, however, everything changed. By the early 18th century, colonial laws such as those excerpted below reflected a significant change in perception of African laborers.

Our goal with this project is to use primary sources in an effort to trace the development of race-based, lifetime, hereditary unfreedom, i.e. slavery in America.


  1. Based on the law below, how was the status (enslaved or free) of a child determined? What impact could this have on the enslaved population and the development of the institution of slavery?

Virginia, 1662 

WHEREAS some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or free, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother…

  1. What did the law below state? What impact could it have had on marriage patterns?

Maryland, 1664 

That whatsoever free-born English woman shall intermarry with any slave. . . shall serve the master of such slave during the life of her husband; and that all the issue of such free-born women, so married shall be slaves as their fathers were. 

  1. What did the law below state? What impact could it have had on religion and enslaved people?
  2. Virginia, 1667 
  3. Act III. Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children that are slaves by birth. . . should by virtue of their baptism be made free, it is enacted that baptism does not alter the condition to the person as to his bondage or freedom; masters freed from this doubt may more carefully propagate Christianity by permitting slaves to be admitted to that sacrament. 
  1. What did the law below state? What was the purpose or motivation in passing the law below?

Virginia, 1663

FOR better suppressing the unlawful meetings of servants, it is thought fit and enacted by this present grand assembly and the authority thereof that all masters of families…take especial care that their negro servants doe not depart from their houses on Sundays or any other days without particular license from them, and that the several respective counties…are empowered as may cause a further restraint of all unlawful meetings of servants and punish the offenders.

  1. Slavery evolved in the American colonies as a social, economic, and legal institution. As historian Frances Latimer explains, “We think about slavery as this complete package that just came to evil landowners. It didn’t happen that way. It happened one law at a time, one person at a time.” How did the above laws serve to institutionalize slavery? How might have the development of slavery in America have been different without them?

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